Schmeelk: After Durant Injury, Knicks Must Rethink Their Offseason Options

Does Acquiring Warriors Star This Summer Still Make Sense?

John Schmeelk
June 11, 2019 - 10:48 am
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It’s startling and sad how sports work sometimes. For an entire year, maybe more, Knicks fans had been looking forward to the summer of 2019, when the team could use cap space to lure a superstar to Madison Square Garden. Rumors reverberated around the NBA for months that Kevin Durant’s preferred destination was the Knicks, and his addition became the centerpiece of all the team’s offseason aspirations.

In one night, all of that might have changed. After admirably returning from a calf injury to play in a do-or-die Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Kevin Durant injured his Achilles tendon. He did everything every fan would want a player on his or her team to do. He put his health on the line to try to help his team win a championship. His team won the game and survived to play Game 6 in Oakland, but now his future is in doubt. It’s a sad situation for Durant, and it is impossible not to feel terribly sorry for him. 

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As for the Knicks, if tests Tuesday show Durant is facing a full Achilles rupture, which would come with daunting rehabilitation that could take up to a year, what does it mean for their offseason? Put simply, Durant’s injury is a terrible turn of events for the Knicks, and it makes their odds of a quick turnaround this offseason very small. Things can go down any number of ways that will alter what the Knicks can do.

Durant’s first option is to activate the $31.5 million player option on his contract to remain in Golden State and rehab next season. He’ll do this if he harbors no ill feelings toward the Warriors' doctors and isn’t confident a full max contract is waiting for him this summer. With the Warriors likely to make a deep playoff run next season (if they re-sign Klay Thompson), Durant could return for that run and try for another championship before hitting free agency far healthier in the summer of 2020.

Another result of Durant opting into his contract could be a trade. If Durant doesn’t like the summer options financially, he could opt in and then work with the Warriors to facilitate a trade to a team of his choosing. A trade would help the Warriors, who would be dealing with luxury-tax implications from the contracts of Durant, Thompson, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. Durant would benefit by going to the team of his choice as quickly as possible.

A trade in this situation would also benefit the team acquiring Durant. The team would then have his Bird rights for the summer of 2020, which would allow it to go over the cap to re-sign him. The cost in a trade like this would not be huge, perhaps one moderate asset (Dennis Smith Jr.?), which might be worth it for a team like the Knicks. The team would also save $7 million or so on Durant’s 2019 salary and see his rehab up close before deciding whether it should re-sign him for 2020 and beyond.

Kevin Durant (35) is helped to his feet by Klay Thompson (11) and Quinn Cook of the Golden State Warriors after sustaining an injury against the Raptors in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals on June 10, 2019, at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Canada.
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Durant’s presence, despite him being injured, might still be an attraction for other NBA stars this summer who would want to join him when he's back closer to full strength in 2020. It would be a risk to trade an asset in such a deal, but it would be worth it to create the opportunity to retain him in the summer of 2020 and make the franchise more attractive. The chances of this sign-and-trade scenario are slim but not impossible.

Durant was supposed to be the linchpin to attract the second star and other ring chasers to the Knicks. The only other player with that type of gravitas available in free agency is Kawhi Leonard. The Knicks should and will turn their full attention to Leonard in an attempt to woo him to New York. Despite Cris Carter’s words on FS1 from Monday that the Knicks' chances of landing Leonard are "higher than people think" and the reports that the Knicks will get a meeting with the Raptors star this summer, there have been few reports linking Leonard to New York.

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The Knicks could also just throw caution to the wind and offer a max contract to Durant this summer starting at $38 million despite his injury. There is an argument to be made that guaranteeing he is on your roster after his rehabilitation is worth the sunken cost of $38 million dollars for a season if he returns to form and plays like the old Kevin Durant.

The key word there is “if.” If there was a way to guarantee Durant would return to form and be healthy and productive for his age-32, -33 and -34 seasons, it would be a no-brainer to throw money at him. That is not the case. There is not a great history of NBA players returning to their prior form off a torn Achilles tendon.  

Kobe Bryant tore it at a much older age of 35 but never came close to the player he was before. Patrick Ewing did it at age 37, and the injury more or less signaled the end of his career as a helpful basketball player. Dominique Wilkins did it at 32 years of age, but came back and didn’t miss much of a beat. Wesley Matthews hurt it at 29 years old, and he hasn’t been the same player since, though the drop-off wasn’t severe from a production perspective. DeMarcus Cousins tore his last season at the age of 27, and his return has been slow.

To think Durant would lose nothing from the injury would be overly optimistic. The question is, how much? Would it impact his shooting, his greatest skill? Wouldn’t that still allow him to be very effective shooting over 7-footers, even if he lost some athleticism? Maybe. But those are big bets to be made on a player who would be taking up $40-plus million of the team’s cap space through the 2022-23 season.

If he comes back and is only the 20th best player in the league, rather than a top-five player, would the Knicks have a real chance to win a title if he were joined by a player not named Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis or, to a lesser extent, Kyrie Irving? Probably not. It makes the decision very, very difficult with so many unknowns that the team can barely make a calculated decision based on the facts available.

So what does all this mean for the Knicks’ offseason? For one, it makes it more likely they get no one of significance and simply continue with their slow rebuild. It is a viable option but one that will be unsatisfying for many fans given that freed-up cap space was a huge part of the return in the trade for Kristaps Porzingis. It is also a strategy that brings its own risks with the hit rate on NBA draft picks not being very high.

The team will certainly try to sign Leonard and continue with its plan to add an Anthony Davis or other stars with a win-now mentality, but that is a low-odds game they’d be playing. This is the grand slam, but there needs to be other, more realistic plans.

The Knicks could just sign an injured Durant, use the remaining cap space to acquire undesirable contracts for more assets and try their hand at free agency again in 2020 with Durant returning from the injury. This might be more desirable than doing nothing since Durant would at least be in hand for the 2020-21 season and the team would have the assets necessary to add to him next summer to try to build a winner. But if Durant ends of being a shell of himself, this would be a crippling path for future cap flexibility to improve the team down the road.

This Durant injury also probably makes it less likely the Knicks trade for Davis. The rationale for giving up assets for someone like Davis would be to add him to a player like Durant for a title run. If Durant doesn’t come this summer or is never the same, Davis would be stuck with a middling roster around him with little hope to make a true run for a championship. An injured Durant might also make it less likely Davis picks re-signing with the Knicks over becoming a free agent in the summer of 2020. It doesn’t rule out a Davis pursuit, but the front office would need to have something in mind to build a winner around him (such as signing Leonard) and guarantee his long-term presence on the roster.

In short, everything is in flux, and Knicks general manager Scott Perry and team president Steve Mills are, to an extent, going to have to rethink all of the scenarios they have gone through and prepared for over the past four months since the Kristaps Porzingis trade. The equation remains the same, but the variables inside it are now very different. The Knicks can’t afford to screw this up, and their path to success just got a lot foggier with a lot of dangerous pitfalls along the way.

You can follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk and subscribe to his podcast, "The Bank Shot" on RADIO.COM, the RADIO.COM app, iTunes and other places where podcasts are found.